Asthma affects one in every 12 people in the United States and this trend is increasing every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conventionally, patients are diagnosed through indirect measures such as lung functionality. Direct methods have traditionally required a venipuncture blood draw and thus have been impractical because they can’t be used with everyone. However, with the kit-on-a-lid-assay (KOALA) microfluidic technology developed by a team of the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, only one drop of blood is required to detect asthma.
“Current tests to diagnose asthma are neither specific nor direct,” said Dr. David Beebe, a professor in the biomedical engineering department and a senior author of the study.
The research was carried out by a graduate student, Eric Sackmann, and focused on obtaining a stronger link between neutrophil cell function and asthma. “Part of the appeal of this technology is the ability to measure the behavior or function of a cell that is linked to asthma, which thus could be a better indicator than current indirect tests,” Beebe said.
The mechanism of KOALA is fairly easy and vastly applicable for numerous studies. Principally, two items are required: a lid, with small surfaces on it, and a base. The surfaces on the lid allow fluids to be controlled via surface tension. When the base is loaded with the necessary chemicals, which in this case is neutrophil, the lid and the base are then combined and allowed to flow. In the case of an asthmatic patient, the speed of neutrophil movement, the chemotaxis velocity, was found to be slower as compared to a normal patient.
The study is also encouraging because it enables doctors to differentiate between mild and chronic asthma patients. Dr. Sameer Mathur, a co-author of the paper, intends to further understand to what extent should one be given medication.
“Small percentages of patients are found to face severe asthmatic attacks. Unfortunately, there is currently no reliable way of predicting such occurrences,” Beebe said.
Therefore, KOALA could allow doctors to identify the severity of one’s asthmatic condition and hence suggest the best treatment for them—one at which, if a patient is diagnosed with mild asthma, avoids spending a huge sum of money on medication as well as limits any possible side effects of the drugs.
Interestingly, asthma diagnosis was not entirely the primary focus when KOALA was first developed. This is because Beebe’s research team emphasizes mostly on cancer and global health. Nonetheless, after being connected with a number of clinicians familiar with asthma, namely Mathur and Dr. Anna Huttenlocher, the research truly became known locally and internationally due to its nature of being the first study to show the possibility at looking at cell function as a means of diagnosis.
The KOALA technology inevitably has massive potential. Essentially, it is useful when working with small volumes and can carry out tasks normally involving pipettes. Hence, it can be advantageous for educational instruction in high schools or colleges. Allowing students to carry out cellular biology experiments in high school without the need of pipettes would prove beneficial financially for schools as well as provide basic exposures to students. Apart from that, the technology is also in midst of commercialization in its early stages. Beebe suggests that KOALA could be useful in providing a cost-effective way for researchers to test various reagents, such as antibodies, to find the optimal reagent before scaling up experiments.
On a final note, Beebe has one advice to all students who intend to pursue research: Be fearless. “Don’t be afraid to fail and experiment on things in the lab. Students who are fearless are often the ones who are most successful.”